The Instruction insists that the whole Church should have access to its riches, says Dr Alcuin Reid

It may seem rather odd that Pope Benedict XVI has expended so much energy on rules about the use of the old “Latin Mass” – after all, it would appear that most Catholics are content with the modern liturgy in the vernacular. Why, then, yet another set of rules from Rome in this Instruction?

The answer is found in the fact that, as the Instruction insists, the older rites are a “precious treasure to be preserved,” and that the Holy Father wants to offer this treasure “to all the faithful”, not as a quaint museum piece but as a living source of life and grace for the whole Church of today and into the future. All laity, clergy and religious should have access to its diverse riches.

These latest rules envisage the inclusion of recent saints and some new texts in the older liturgy. They even foresee new editions of the missal and other liturgical books of the older rites: the older liturgy will continue to exist and develop as it has over the centuries up until the Second Vatican Council. But it cannot, however, now have certain modern practices (altar girls, extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, etc) imposed on it. Its integrity is guaranteed.

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Of course, there are historical realities behind this Instruction and the 2007 Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum which it clarifies. In the first place there is the controversy over the liturgical changes that followed the Council. Were they a legitimate development or did they involve a rupture with tradition? Neither of these documents settles that question, but the Instruction does, significantly, speak of the development of the Missale Romanum “until the time of Blessed Pope John XXIII” and of the “new Missal” approved for the Church in 1970 by Paul VI. This authoritative recognition of a clear distinction between the two – both of which, the Instruction maintains, must be seen to be legitimate and valid – does admit a clear “difference” between that of Paul VI and what came before. Discussion of the implications of this will continue.

And then there is the more recent historical reality of widespread opposition to the use of older liturgical rites (not just the Mass, but the sacraments and the blessings and so on, as the Instruction makes clear) on the part of bishops, religious superiors and priests. That is why the Instruction was necessary: even after Summorum Pontificum established that in Church law everyone who wants the older liturgy is entitled to it, this opposition continued, sometimes from high-ranking prelates. This Instruction underlines these rights and makes explicit what was implicit in Summorum Pontificum, namely that if these rights are denied Catholics, be they laity or clergy, have the right of appeal (“recourse”) according to the norms of canon law. It is unusual for Rome to advertise this in an Instruction, but in the light of the opposition it seems necessary.

One of the principal areas of dispute has been what constitutes the “stable group” that is required to request regular public celebrations of the old liturgy. The Instruction dismisses the various straw men put up since Summorum Pontificum in order to block requests for the older liturgy and insists that these groups can be small, can come from different parishes or even dioceses and that they can exist only for the purpose of worshipping the old rites.

This generosity of interpretation, which runs throughout the Instruction, is a fundamental principle in interpreting canon law: when ecclesiastical authority (the Pope in Summorum Pontificum) grants a favour for the good of people (the continued use of the older liturgy) it is to be applied generously and not restrictively.

One issue not resolved by this Instruction is what the older rites are to be called. It uses “ordinary form” and “extraordinary form” as well as “Antiquior Usus” (the “more ancient use”) of the Roman rite. Some commentators have insisted on an interpretation of “extraordinary” that is quite pejorative: the older rites have been regarded as an eccentric relative, mention of whose existence brings about a knowing smile and with whom close contact is seen as a risk. There is no foundation for this in either Summorum Pontificum or this Instruction. The terms “ordinary” and “extraordinary” are used in a sense of what is statistically normative, that is all. Indeed, in the Latin text “ordinaria” and “extraordinaria” are not capitalised, whereas “Antiquior Usus” is. Given the derogatory use to which “extraordinary form” has been put, it is probably time to set it aside in favour of “the more ancient rites” or some such terminology.

There are, I suggest, two areas in which the Instruction is weak. The first is in its assertion that seminarians should be given the opportunity to learn the older rites “where pastoral needs suggest it”. Some bishops will use the latitude permitted here to exclude such formation from seminaries. That will only serve to impoverish seminarians’ overall liturgical formation, for regardless of whether a diocese has a clear “pastoral” demand for the older rites, experience and knowledge of them on the part of future priests cannot but serve to enrich their grasp of liturgical theology and spirituality, and lay a good foundation for their liturgical ministry, even – perhaps especially – in the new rites.

The other weakness is the Instruction’s curious restriction of the older rites of ordination. This denies diocesan bishops the pastoral freedom to judge which rite of ordination is best; it may discourage vocations. Priests have this freedom in respect of celebrations of the Mass and other sacraments: why this ungenerous restriction on bishops? This is an anomaly that needs to be addressed.

These concerns aside, the Instruction Universæ Ecclesiæ underlines the fact that the older Roman rites are here to stay. When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope I wrote that “there is little doubt that we shall see freedom granted to the traditional Latin Mass”. That has now more than come to pass, and decisively.

It may seem strange that this matter is a priority for Pope Benedict. But we need to remember, as he wrote in 1997, that “the true celebration of the sacred liturgy is the centre of any renewal of the Church whatever”. In the Holy Father’s judgment, free access to the Usus Antiquior is a necessary component of such renewal.

Dr Alcuin Reid is a cleric of the Diocese of Fréjus-Toulon, France, and editor of Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described

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